Long before she was a teenage actress holding her snarky own in Roseanne, before heading a panel of women sharing their perspectives on The Talk, and before the Roseanne reboot reconfigured into The Conners, Sara Gilbert found her voice as a performer.
Specifically, during an elementary school performance of The Wizard of Oz, the five-year-old Gilbert was cast as Toto, which sparked an improvisational chord. “When we were doing it, I decided to start barking at random times during the play, and every time I would bark, people would laugh,” Gilbert recalls. “That was me figuring out that I could do comedy.”
Showbusiness was the family trade: among other credits, her maternal grandfather Harry Crane developed The Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason and brought the celebrity roast concept to The Dean Martin Show. And half-siblings Melissa and Jonathan Gilbert were child stars on Little House on the Prairie, collecting crew gifts at holiday time that their younger sister coveted. “I was really jealous, so I wanted in on that,” she laughs. “I also just had this overwhelming sense that I was supposed to be an actor; like, I just knew it.”
At 13 she auditioned for the role that would launch her into stardom: Roseanne’s Darlene Conner, to which she brought an over-it-all middle daughter reality, while expertly landing the most cutting one-liners—something Gilbert had already honed at home from verbally smacking down her sister. “I remember thinking, Oh yeah, I know how to do this.”
Despite its star Roseanne Barr’s steady stream of controversies and behind-the-scenes battles, Roseanne became a ratings sensation and a critical darling. Gilbert embraced the professional responsibility that came with the job. “We all felt work came first, and that was a great atmosphere to grow up in,” she says. “We all took it really seriously.”
Unlike many actors who experience fame at an early age, Gilbert was, thanks to her family’s industry roots, comfortable in the public eye. “Fame wasn’t that strange to me,” she says. “The only weird thing about being a famous teenager was that it’s a really strong juxtaposition between the adoration and attention, and the normal feelings of loneliness and isolation that can come with being a teenager. The ‘Who am I?’ and figuring all that out with all the attention is sort of strange, because the two poles are so different…If I rebelled as a kid, it wasn’t away from my career. That was the one thing that always made me feel good.”
During her final seasons of Roseanne, Gilbert had already embarked on studies at Yale. Then, after graduation, her acting career would continue to flourish, with a string of diverse roles on various high-profile network series, including dramas such as ER, 24 and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, as well as comedies like The Big Bang Theory, where she frequently shared scenes with her Roseanne co-star and longtime friend Johnny Galecki. “Johnny and I just have the best chemistry and the best friendship,” she says. “Every time we’ve worked together, we send each other texts like, ‘I can’t believe it. It just feels like the cameras disappear when we do these scenes.’ It’s so sweet. It’s like, here we are, 30 years later, still marveling at how awesome it feels to work together.”
Along the way, she became a television producer almost “by accident” when she conceived of the daytime chat show The Talk—which funneled the format of The View specifically through a more maternal-minded lens. It was sold to CBS in 2010. “I was looking to expand myself spiritually, in a way,” she says. “I felt a little bit stuck, and I felt like I was afraid of public speaking, and it would be an interesting way to challenge myself.”
As both co-host and producer, Gilbert learned by doing. “It really pushed me to learn how to develop a public persona that felt authentic and matched who I really am,” she says. “You also learn how to not say more than you’re comfortable with, how to not overshare. On the producing front, I really learned how and when to speak up. At the beginning, I felt like everybody knew better than I did, and I had to learn how to really value my voice.” She says the move prepared her for the Roseanne reboot and The Conners. “By the time I came into that, I thought, ‘Okay, my vision and my thoughts are as important as everybody else who’s producing it. No more important, but no less.’”
Gilbert was also an integral force in reviving Roseanne for its hit 2017-2018 season, before Barr once again succumbed to controversy and was removed from the show, prompting a creative rebranding as The Conners. As a result, Gilbert’s role took on greater emphasis as the family’s de facto matriarch. “I saw the show as an ensemble from the beginning of this reboot,” she says, “and I continue to see it as an ensemble. I definitely have had to probably do a few more scenes per episode and take on a little bit more weight, but I just think we have the most incredible cast, and I just rely on them, and really, these great writers.”
Playing the adult Darlene, far more beleaguered and challenged by life than she or her family ever anticipated, has not only filled the substantial void left by Barr, but also been a rewarding experience for Gilbert. “I wanted to bring some more vulnerability to the character,” she says. “I mean, she always had that, but I felt like maybe life could have worn down some of her defenses a bit. I like this idea of somebody middle class who seemed like the rising star, the one that was going to break the cycle, having kids young and staying stuck in the cycle. Because I think that happens for so many people across our country… But I think there’s hope, too. She’s still struggling to make it, and she’s starting to write and getting closer to her passion.” The Conners has been renewed for a second season.
Gilbert will soon depart The Talk after nine seasons. “It’s been a very difficult decision,” she admits. “It’s been years in the making, as I’ve gotten busier. I’ve been acting more and more, and wanting to do that, and then I’m really wanting to produce more and more and starting to develop projects.” She’s also married to songwriter and music producer Linda Perry and raising three children. “I just thought, I know I need to act more, and I know I need to produce, and I know I need to see my kids. I’ve had the opportunity to do the talk show for nine years. It felt like, ‘Ok, now it’s time to focus on these other things.’”
It’s a creatively fertile time for Gilbert, who also has a recurring role on the upcoming season of Netflix’s Atypical, and the voice she discovered as a child is more vibrant than ever. “I think I’m really drawn to projects that are a blend of comedy and drama. Projects that, if it’s a comedy, are still very emotional and poignant, and if it’s a drama, it’s still extremely funny. I like that world in between, because I think that’s what life is like.”